Soldiers Get Treatment For PTSD


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Published: January 14, 2009

PALM HARBOR – Adam Ankarlo fought for 10 months with his Marine battalion in Iraq during Operation Phantom Fury, the largest offensive battle since Vietnam, also known as the 2004 Battle for Fallujah.

And for three years since his return home in 2005 to Orlando, he has battled the disabling effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. Doctors say his symptoms are the result of repeated exposure to grenade and bomb blasts.

Ankarlo’s wife, Ashley, said that when her husband returned from Fallujah he seemed “pretty much like himself,” but he soon became withdrawn and agitated.

“He slept with a knife,” she said. “It got to the point where we’d be out driving and you’d see him check every window in every building we passed. There’s not a guy that went to Fallujah that didn’t come home like that.”

She said treatments her husband received through the Department of Veterans Affairs – “a slew of different medications” – did nothing to relieve his cognitive difficulties, debilitating depression and severe anxiety.

In December, a friend told the couple about a treatment doctors are using across the country with great success to treat people with brain injuries: hyperbaric oxygen therapy.

The treatment isn’t cheap, however. Each sequence of visits to a hyperbaric chamber can cost thousands of dollars, and the Ankarlo’s military insurance would not pay for it.

“The VA is sadly way behind the civilian sector on the latest treatments for brain injury,” Ashley Ankarlo said.

Two weeks ago, Adam Ankarlo, 27, and his friend, 26-year-old retired Marine Cpl. Chad Allcox, took their first “dive” in hyperbaric chambers at National Hyperbaric-Tampa Bay in Palm Harbor.

Center owner Allan Spiegel waived his fee for the treatment, and the nonprofit Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund is putting up the two men in a nearby rental condo for the duration of their therapy. They will undergo twice-daily treatments for several more weeks.

The Food and Drug Administration has not approved the use of hyperbaric oxygen therapy for the treatment of brain injuries or neurological disorders. It is commonly used to help heal wounds from surgery, injury, disease or infection, but Spiegel and many other doctors report remarkable success using it “off label.”

His Palm Harbor facility is one of four in the nation recruited to participate in a clinical trial coordinated by physician Paul Harch of Louisiana, a leader in the field of hyperbaric medicine.

Harch, Spiegel and other proponents of the therapy lobbied for a bill under consideration in Congress that would require the Department of Defense to pay for any procedure available to treat wounded soldiers’ injuries or reimburse those who pay for treatments on their own.

Supporters of the measure, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Grace Napolitano of California, hope results of the trial will persuade lawmakers to pass the bill so more soldiers can start receiving hyperbaric oxygen treatments.

Meanwhile, Spiegel and more than 80 other doctors across the county agreed to offer the treatments for free to soldiers who were not chosen for the study. To help foot the bill, Spiegel formed a charitable foundation, Healing Heroes Network.

While he waits for donations to roll in, the neurologist is absorbing the costs to treat the first two, Ankarlo and Allcox.

Spiegel prescribed a regimen of roughly 60 one-hour sessions in the hyperbaric chamber for Ankarlo, which would cost $15,000 out of pocket.

After 20 sessions, Ashley Ankarlo said she already notices improvement in her husband’s demeanor.

“Adam says he feels more aware,” she said. “He’s definitely sleeping less, and he and Chad actually started working out at the gym this week.”

Spiegel said almost every patient he has treated for brain injury or neurological disorders during the past 11 years has seen positive results with hyperbaric oxygen therapy. Some, he said, experience dramatic recoveries nothing short of miraculous.

“With brain injuries and neurological disorders, nothing works all the time,” he said, “but nothing works as well as hyperbaric oxygen therapy.”

Click here for more information on the HEALING HEROES NETWORK